A renewed focus for sustainability at the V&A

January 5, 2021


We are only the trustees for those who come after us.

William Morris

I was thrilled to take up the new position of Sustainability Lead at the V&A over the summer, a role created to embed sustainability within the institution. Since then I’ve been immersing myself in all things V&A, and have found a real appetite and enthusiasm for all aspects of sustainable working. From bee hives on the roof to the imaginative reuse of materials from exhibitions and hosting part of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee’s inquiry into sustainability in the fashion industry, there are so many exciting initiatives. The organisation is vast and diverse, almost overwhelmingly so, every day I’m learning about a new activity or corner of the museum. I’m looking to consolidate existing good practice and then take it to the next level, focusing on a systemic change in practices and behaviours. 

Form of stems drawing by Christopher Dresser, 1854 – 56. Museum no. 3942 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Aligning sustainability to the mission and values of the V&A is relatively easy. Home to 5,000 years of human ingenuity in art and design, the museum connects people with the past and questions how we can shape our collective futures. It is absolutely our role think about what and how we make and consume, and the effect of this on society and the natural environment. We have a responsibility to explore the ideas and realities of what environmental, social and economic sustainability means across generations, locations and societies. This is why the Brundtland intergenerational definition of sustainability resonates so clearly with the organisation. In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission coined the definition, ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Museums are increasingly advocates for sustainability. Henry McGhie from Curating Tomorrow considers how ‘Museums can support the UN Sustainable Development Goals’. The We Are Museums ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ programme supports museums to become climate leaders and help foster systemic changes towards a climate-resilient future. Engaging with our audiences on issues that matter to them is vital, opening space for honest debate and catalysing positive change.

I’ll be working on developing new partnerships and further developing existing ones, for example we have recently joined the London Climate Change Partnership. Collaboration is key, we can achieve so much more if we join forces with others and make the most of sector networks.

Placing the V&A’s action within a wider policy context is important. The Paris Agreement aims to strengthen the global response to climate change by keeping temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, ideally limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. At a national level, the UK is committed to at least a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. The Mayor’s London Environment Strategy brings together approaches to every aspect of the city’s environment, integrating air quality, green infrastructure, climate change mitigation and energy, waste, adapting to climate change, ambient noise and low-carbon circular economy. And the local authorities where our physical buildings are located, Kensington and Chelsea, Tower Hamlets and Newham all have focused climate action plans.

Extinction Rebellion fabric patch, about 2019. Museum no. CD.9-2019 © Image Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The scene is set, and I’m looking forward to what comes next. Continually improving the efficiency of our complex physical estate, measuring our significant environmental impacts, exploring new cross-disciplinary modes of curating, embedding sustainability into decision making – it’s all happening. Your enthusiasm, creativity and expertise to support us on our journey is most welcome.

About the author

January 5, 2021

I work across the organisation to embed sustainability expertise and catalyse systemic change in operations and behaviours.

More from Sara Kassam
0 comments so far, view or add yours

Add a comment

Please read our privacy policy to understand what we do with your data.


Join today and enjoy unlimited free entry to all V&A exhibitions, Members-only previews and more

Find out more


Explore our range of exclusive jewellery, books, gifts and more. Every purchase supports the V&A.

Find out more